HOKA Project CarbonX Recap and Analysis

HOKA Carbon X

I found out about this mystery event a few months ago and signed an NDA to not discuss it whatsoever. This was tough for me even though I barely knew anything and I’d likely not be at the event anyways because I’d signed up for Miwok 100k on the same day. Yeah, a bit frustrating to “know” about an event but have few details, especially after Jim hinted at it during our talk in January. But come on…how long have I been begging someone to take a real crack at the 50m or 100k road records? I could wait a few months.

Would it be a 50M attempt or 100k attempt? We knew about Jim’s involvement, but any info on women was clouded and I knew nothing about the Japanese athletes until only a week out. The addition of Yamauchi got me particularly excited, as someone with his experience and resume would lend some real structure and additional credibility to the event.

I’ll be honest. I’m pretty skeptical and often critical of things like this. Big budget shoe launches disguised as “races” are generally not my thing, but I’m happy to say that this past weekend was balanced well and gave me a lot of hope for both the specialty endurance space in general and the MUT media scene in particular. There was no question a shoe was being launched (it was EVERYwhere), but there was also a ton of focus on the athletes, and they, in turn, stoked most interest in road ultra. Wrap up all of that, add a dash of Mother Nature’s magic, and everyone involved in this event shined this weekend.

First, the shoe.

I’ve only put about 15 miles on the Carbon X, but they do feel nice. Not the same level of nice as the first time you slipped on HOKAs, but pretty damn nice. One thing is already certain…they look fast and make you feel fast. I ran for an hour in them this yesterday morning–coincidentally on the same path they used on Saturday–and mixed in uptempo pace with slower recoveries and yes, there’s a noticeable difference. The two ways I’d describe the feel: There’s an uninterrupted foot strike that feels more natural. Because of the exaggerated rocker on the back and the raised toe, the foot rolls right through the cycle and then bam, springs off to start the cycle over.

The long and short of it is that HOKA spent a few years trying to figure out how to make a cushioned and springy shoe that felt like a HOKA but wasn’t designed for running 15minute 100 milers on the trails. What they did was give a maxi shoes (32/28mm) a 1.5mm thick carbon plate the length of the shoe that, along with the generous rocker, allowed the foot to fully cycle through a stride in one motion rather than the typical heel strike, rolling to mid foot, then toe off. The carbon also provides structure for the shoe and prevents sag. The designers expect this to be a ~300 mile shoe, and from just my initial workings with the CarbonX, that seems about right.

At 8.5 oz it isn’t feather light, but it’s still lighter than most of my shoes. It’s also a now-reasonably priced $180, so when compared with other high tech go-fast shoes, expect to see many runners wearing these from the half marathon distance up the road ultras. I asked the design team if they’ve got a trail version the works and they demured.

When Bruce Fordyce set the record in the early 80s, he was wearing Lydiard Brutting shoes. Custom made with heavy and fat soles and an 11mm drop, many versions had a kangaroo-hyde upper that makes them slightly less advanced the Carbon Xs of today.

The event

I included my analysis of the event on Wednesday with prediction for who I thought would hit the mark and why and like most predictions, I guessed wrong, stung once again by the fact that ours is a fickle sport and everything must be aligned perfectly to hit any performance expectations.

At the press conference Friday afternoon, I asked if this was a race, a time trial, or some new iteration of a product launch, and the answer was “it’s an invitational.” Fair enough. I would’ve loved to see Camille Herron, Pam Smith, Caroline Boller, Zach Bitter, Zach Ornelas, and others take a crack on the course, but HOKA put some serious money and resources into this and it was their party. It is interesting to note that initially, an invitation was extended to at least one non-HOKA athlete, but they declined. I’m not sure how many more went out.

The start was electric with news crews, media trucks (Eric Senseman strapped to the back of a tricked out SmartCar), motos, and a phalanx of international journalists who’d been flown in to cover the event. This was not, as some feared, a low-budget Breaking 2. This was a big deal and the PR team did an excellent job with access and hype, though I still don’t fully understand why it was kept under wraps until just three days out.

The start was pretty electric…dare I say electric blue? Though there were only eight athletes starting the “race”, each runner also had 2-3 pacers with them so it did seem a bit more robust than just the eight names we know about. After a surprise hug from Jim’s mom, they were off.

Note: URP Gear Editor Ben Zuehlsdorf and I were both there to cover the race and we paid our own way. I was given a pair of sample shoes and used a media ticket to get a gyro, but no other compensation was offered or accepted.

I caught the runners at about mile 2 as they turned off Folsom Blvd and onto the American River Parkway/Bikepath. Jim was leading, running with a few pacers from nearby running clubs, with the rest of the 7 runners trailing behind him. Next time I caught them was at mile eight or so at Sunrise Blvd with Tyler Andrews in the lead. Tyler had indicated he was going for the 50M world record (he’s never raced past 50k), so his pace was a few seconds faster than Jim, Pat, and Yamauchi’s. As anyone who’s run or lived in Sacrament has surely encountered, the bike path was occupied by Canada geese, roosters, and a few wild turkeys, but luckily they scattered in time for the show to come through.

During my 20 minute drive back to the start, I caught some of the HOKA coverage and thought it was pretty darn good. Eric Senseman was doing a great job, and the HOKA commercials interspersed with the commentary were not obtrusive. Yeah, I would’ve liked to see more commentary by people who are involved in the ultra scene more, but it was still well done. (If only there were a local guy with extensive on-air experience who’s been following these exact records for years, and knows the entire course like the back of his hand. Anyone know someone with those qualifications?) Clearly the media, marketing, and PR folks had worked hard to figure out how to make a six hour race an exciting and watchable event and they did very well. I don’t know what type of coverage they received for it or if met their expectations, but I’d consider it a starting blueprint for future projects like this. Kudos to Mike McManus and Alex Kurt with HOKA and Raymond Wright with Outside PR for doing the big PR work and keeping it exciting.

So once the runners got to the “loops” at mile 19, the real party started. Since the relay was underway, there was a criterion feel to the event with fast guys and gals blasting across mats, thru media arches, and across bridges every few minutes. Eight relay teams of ten people each (10 x 10k) meant there were a lot of fast runners moseying about, but the bibs were clear enough that even to the non-runners I spoke with, they could tell who was running the relay and who was in for the 100k. Most of the 100k pacers dropped after the marathon, so it was just competitors at this point.

A bit more about the relay runners, outside of the fact they made me feel fat, ugly, old, and slow: While most of the spectators and focus was on the athletes going after 100k, the relay runners couldn’t have cared less. They were very unfazed by the Walmsley machine and added a neat element to the event that mixed otherwise disparate groups: Road speedsters and ultra trail runners. I’d also expressed concern in my Wednesday analysis and at the press conference about relay runners interfering illegally with the 100k runners, but that was assuaged when I realized the courses varied slightly. (100k course was a 4.7 mile loop while the 10k loops added a 1.5 out and back.) Again, the even folks had done their job.

I was also somewhat critical of how the permitting of the bike path was carried out (little warning to other user groups and much more space permitted than usual), but the team did an excellent job of still allowing casual runners to share the space while making it safe and legal for the competitors. I was there not only as someone covering the race for the MUT space, but also as a representative of my local community, and as someone who’s often critical of law enforcement, I’m happy to say the Sacramento County Park Rangers did an excellent job patrolling and the event team did a great job communicating with them how it would all go down. Kudos to all involved there. The last thing I wanted is for the event to go perfectly, then there be some issue with Sacramento officials.

So the actual race? Lots of eyes on Jim for the 100k, but I was expecting Yamauchi for the win. He’s the two time champ, he’s run this distance plenty of times and is a real student (and coach) of road ultras. While Jim is screaming fast at pretty much any distance, this would be a new test for him and it turns out he learned some lessons with surges and pacing. Jim had been three minutes under WR pace, but after a few quick miles in an attempt to get closer to the 50M record, slowed a bit from the big effort.

Still though, the 50M mark was still in contention. I jumped on my scooter and zipped down to the 50M clock, picking up Don Freeman (original URP cohost and now bossman at Trail Runner Nation) on my way and made it there a few minutes before Jim’s arrival. We could see about 200y down the course, and as the clock ticked close to 4:50:41, everyone was clinching their teeth and hopping up and down in hopes of seeing his head pop up soon. There he is! Now alone and with no pacer, Jim picked up his pace considerably and crossed over the line in 4:50:07, slowing to a jog/walk within a few seconds. I’d been waiting a long damn time to see someone break Fordyce’s record, and holy cow, there it was, right in front of me.

Sabrina’s gait was looking a little uneven and I was concerned she was having hip problems. It was also clear that the cameras and crowds were not something she was comfortable with. I was out on the course away from people and she looked a lot more relaxed than while running through the throngs of cameras and hype and that’s understandable. I’m married to an introvert and recognized the pattern clearly.

At that point it was apparent no one would be breaking the 6:09 mark, but the certified 6:16 was still possible. While Kazami’s mark from last year is widely accepted, Andy Milroy of the highly respected ARRS insists that the wind on the Lake Saroma course exceeded the threshold allowed by USATF and should not be verified. According to ARRS, the fastest verified mark on a non-wind-aided course is 6:16: 41 by Jean-Paul Praet of Belgium at Winschoten in the Netherlands on September 12 1992. I mentioned this to Weldon Johnson from LetsRun, who, while a really nice guy, seemed very surprised at the ultra scene and equally perplexed how there could be multiple “bests” for a given distance. Fair enough though. He was interested and curious with questions and hopefully his site will have more non-sponsored MUT news and analysis.

By this time, Tyler Andrews had gone from looking strong and fast to lying in the med tent. I’m not sure what happened to him (stomach issues, I believe), but he must’ve gone downhill fast. Bummer. Tyler is quick and it would have been neat if he and Jim could’ve gone after 50M together. Check out the water bottle pic in the gallery below. He duct-taped pipe cleaners to his little bottles and would hang them off the side of the aid tables, very similar to elite table at road marathons.

Wardian told me mid race that he was going after the 50k record, but a few laps later said “oops, that was a mistake” and suffered for much of the remainder of the day. Always a crowd pleaser, Mike still pushed hard and admitted his disappointment in having an early Sunday flight and not having time to run a local 10 miler. That’s Mike for you.

At the start/finish (this is where the relay started, both events ran through, and both events finished), the crew had set up an athlete village of sorts with large party tents, couches, phone chargers, and catered food that far exceeded the fare at any other ultra I’ve covered. Reps were there with shoes, athletes of all caliber milled about, and another stage was set up for live broadcasts. My friend Makiko (John’s wife) provided commentary with DogsorCaravan founder Koichi Iwasa for the Japanese market. This was a big production and it was especially fun to meet Koichi in person after following each other for years online.

Speaking of the Japanese market, I inadvertently wore my Yuki Kawauchi shirt to the press conference and the Japanese contingency noticed and loved it. (I’m asked constantly where I got it and I honestly can’t remember. Pretty sure someone sent it to me, but can’t recall. Anyone?)

By noon or so (six hours into the race), Sabrina had straightened out her gait and I commented that maybe the varied terrain was now playing to her favor. She was looking better and suffering pretty well. Aiko Kanematsu, the other female there for the 100k had suffered enough and called it a day and Yoshiki Takada continued to run pretty well out of the spotlight.

Patrick Reagan still clicked off laps with very little change to his perfect form and efficient stride. Foused and strong, he kept up lap after lap, possibly enjoying the benefits of the new, shorter beard length.

I hung out for a bit, spoke with Sage who’d paced Patrick to a 2:37 marathon, watched the drug testing process start, and decided to run home to grab Sunny so she could see Sabrina finish. Unfortunately she was busy so I stayed home and didn’t get to see she or Mike cross the finish line.

All and all, a great event not just for HOKA, but for the overall ultra scene in general (ultras happen off trail, too!), and especially for Sacramento. The city shined (partially thanks to the perfect spring weather) and I think really put us on the map for a site to hold record-eligible events like this in the future.

With the relays going on and disparate groups hanging out (road speedsters and ultra trail runners), it had a very Ekiden-feel to it and there’s already some talk about creating an American Ekiden on the course. (I imagine using the entire 33 mile course, but not reserving the entire thing, and racing the stages back and forth.)

Wrap Up

Overall, I’d make very few changes. Sure, I would’ve liked to see head to head competition, but that’s now what this event was and hey, at least it was record-eligible. A leaderboard would’ve been nice (there were many times that we couldn’t tell who was on which lap), and it would’ve made sense to have shoes available for sale at the event, but aside from the format change, those are minor critiques.

This event showed that road ultras can be exciting to watch, they’ve got a long history in the US and abroad, and they’re worthy records to attempt. It showed that Jim was able to change his plans on the fly and break his pattern of winning huge or blowing up…this time, he pushed too hard and took option C, which was the 50 mile record. It showed how a relatively new brand like HOKA can make a huge impact on the running scene, and how events can have multiple distances and formats that appeal to different groups.

Press conference Friday before the event.
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Shoe designers held an informational meeting and Q&A.
Aiko Kanematsu, my in my Yuki shirt, Hideaki Yamauchi, and Yoshiki Takada.
Start of the race there were athletes everywhere.
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Jim Walmsley gets a surprise hug from his mom before the gun goes off.
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Eric Senseman on the lead media vehicle.
They’re off!
Course was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, but the turkeys, geese, and roosters were not affected.
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Takada and his pacing crew (Jared Hazen, right) coming thru mile 9ish.
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Sabrina Little clicking off loops on the levee trail.
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Makiko Yamashita and Koichi Iwasa providing commentary for Japanese media.
Photo by John Onate.
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Athletes (and parents of athletes) in the start/finish village area.
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Mike Wardian clicking off laps.
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Patrick Reagan focused and consistent. Sage Canaday lead the way thru the marathon.
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Tyler Andrews’ high tech water bottle contraption.
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Jim Walmsley en route towards 50 mile mark.
I picked up Don Freeman on my scooter and we did our best podcasters-turned-Dumb-and-Dumber impersonations.
Jim Walmsley crossing the timing mat at 4:50:07.
We’ll wait for official timing split from USATF.
Post race interviews with Yamauchi
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Patrick Reagan finishes the event and immediately starts analyzing his performance and looking towards Western States in two months.
Jim’s in there somewhere.
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Sabrina heading out for her final lap.
My Carbon X’s after introducing them to the local trails on Sunday. That white gets dirty FAST.

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